Baltimore’s Working Class in Black and White

the long shadowI worked in downtown Baltimore in the 1980’s, and I work there again now. In walking the streets, the difference is stark, and depressing. The old bustle of Charles Center is gone, and Harborplace is no longer what it was. But the major difference in downtown is the evident lack of prosperity and business occupancy. Even the old grand dame of office buildings, 10 Light Street, which was once the Maryland National Bank Building with exquisite first floor decorations and a huge, gleaming safe, is now condominiums, and the marble banking floor is covered with an artificial surface for athletic purposes.

But a more important question about Baltimore for those interested in welfare policy and modern urban society, as we are at the Towson University Regional Economic Studies Institute (RESI), is this: What is happening to the people out in the neighborhoods? Since the factories closed and rust descended, what happened to the old Baltimore working class, the heart and soul of the city of 40, 50 and 60 years ago? And let’s avoid trying to answer such a question with anecdote or spin.

The Long Shadow

the long shadow

The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood, by Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, Linda Olson

One set of answers, and a very fine set, comes from the 2014 study by Hopkins sociologists Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson, called The Long Shadow. There are a couple of really extraordinary features of this study. Perhaps primary among them is that the authors tracked 790 people, both black and white, for almost twenty-five years, between 1982, when the subjects began first grade, and 2007, when they were well on their way to being established adults. The amount of dedication and hard work it took to follow those people is rare; it deserves to be widely emulated because only in historical perspective can the fates of people be truly seen.

The authors’ answer is that members of the working class have been thrown on hard times. That is no surprise. What is, perhaps, more surprising is how much harder those times have been for blacks than for whites. The Long Shadow documents this very clearly. Although the demographics of the white working class subjects was similar in many ways to that of black working class subjects, there were several differences that stood out, all of them connected to one big factor: Whites got better jobs and made more money. Their white male sample was making $41,600 annually at age 28, while their black sample only made $28,700, a difference of nearly $13,000 annually. In percentage terms, this meant that whites out-earned blacks by 45%. They did this by getting prized blue-collar work, especially in the construction trades, using family, friend and neighborhood connections. These networks apparently dated back to Baltimore’s World War II and post-war boom, and continued to function in the ‘00’s (and probably today as well). They landed these jobs early, often working before leaving high school. Blacks, on the other hand, were more frequently un- or under-employed, and found their jobs more by individual effort than through networks. They were less likely to be working while in high school, and also more likely to have encounters with law enforcement.

All of these differences were compounded by the fact that whites were more likely to be married than blacks. Even though working class white women made little more money than black women, they were more likely to be married, and thus their household incomes were elevated by their spouses’ incomes.

Depressing news, but could it be that progress has been made since 2007? Doubtful. Foreclosures have hit communities of color more heavily than white communities since then, according to national reports, and Baltimore City must have been no exception to that trend.

Thanks to these sociologists’ long and painstaking efforts, the drama of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson’s Fences take on the additional depth of sociological accuracy and Baltimore nuance.

John Spears, Ph.D. on Email
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John Spears, Ph.D. serves as a Senior Human Services Consultant at the Regional Economic Studies Institute. An expert in research, policy analysis, and data management, Dr. Spears provides support for the Maryland State Department of Education's Division of Early Childhood Development. There he handles policy analysis, budget forecasting and some ad hoc reporting. Most recently, he performed an analysis of the fiscal impact of recent CCDF policy changes on the Child Care Subsidy Program.